Ah, the holidays! You can already smell the cider and hear Mariah Carey ringing through every department store. Unfortunately, scammers love the holidays too. Tons of online shopping, charitable donations, and package deliveries give them opportunities to make a quick buck. But don’t let scammers turn you into the Grinch.
Here are the most common holiday scams to avoid so you feel more like Cindy Lou Who all season long.
What are holiday scams?
Holiday scams are like other scams, except they occur during the end-of-year holiday months – when shoppers are feeling financial pressure, searching for the best deals, and donating to their favorite charities. Scammers smell the holiday cheer and generosity and use it to their advantage.
Where there’s more demand, there are more scams, which is why fraudsters heavily target online shoppers. According to the National Retail Federation® (NRF), retail sales have been increasing at an average annual rate of 4.9% since 2011,¹ with online and other non-store sales up 11.3%. And more than 35% of scams reported to the Better Business Bureau® (BBB) Scam Tracker in 2021 were online purchase scams.²
The more you know, the better. No matter how or where you’re shopping, verify to whom you’re sending money, question deals that seem too good to be true, and follow some of these other tips for avoiding online scammers.
For more peace of mind about your cash, enroll in Chime’s SpotMe® service. We’ve got your back on up to $200 on debit card purchases and cash withdrawals with no fees.³
The following are among the most common scams that thrive around the holidays. Luckily, they all have one thing in common: you can avoid them if you know what to look for.
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Package delivery scams
If you’re not expecting a package and suddenly get text messages, emails, or phone calls notifying you about one – red flag. Sure, it could be a gift from Grandma, but that’s how package delivery scammers convince you to participate: by sounding cordial and professional, while hoping you won’t ask too many questions (since gift-giving is the norm this time of year).
You’ll typically receive some out-of-the-blue communication referring to a package “being delivered” to your address. The message may sound urgent and contain a phony link or downloadable attachment to print.4
The message may also request you update your payment information and address, or pay a shipping fee. The goal is to get you to hand over your personal information, click on harmful links, and download viruses and malware files.
Be on the lookout this season for fake, unsolicited messages that appear to be from the U.S. Postal Service®, FedEx®, or UPS®. They may look legit at first glance.
How to avoid it:
✓ Don’t click on any links in a suspicious email or text
✓ Go to the carrier’s website directly to track your package
✓ Ask friends and family to notify you of upcoming deliveries
Non-delivery and non-payment scams
Some scammers are getting paid for nonexistent products (non-delivery scams), while others are receiving goods and services without ever paying the seller (non-payment scams). These are some of the most prevalent scams around the holidays and have cost people more than $337 million, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center’s (IC3) 2021 report.5
How are these scams so convincing? The criminals don’t operate alone. They function as a part of an organized crime group and create seemingly legitimate websites with professional-sounding salespeople.
Ads for these falsified products seem trustworthy and sometimes even mimic real brands. Once they gain your trust, they ask for payment in advance.
How to avoid it:
✓ Check the website URL to ensure it’s legitimate and secure
✓ Check business reviews, especially on the BBB website
✓ Don’t share personal or payment information over public Wi-Fi
✓ Verify the legitimacy of the seller or buyer by using this FBI.gov checklist
Gift card scams
Gift cards make thoughtful presents. Unfortunately, these prepaid cards give scammers a way to steal money without a trace.
Fraudsters can disguise themselves as family members or legitimate businesses and request gift cards for payment. If this feels “off” to you, that’s because it is!
The minute they receive the gift card number and PIN, they’ll take the money and stop communication.
Some scammers will go to gift card racks in stores, steal the card numbers, and uncover the PINs (then cover them again) – so they’re ready to steal the cash once it’s activated.
How to avoid it:
✓ Avoid buying gift cards from the rack (buy from behind the counter instead)
✓ Scrutinize the company’s return and refund policies
✓ If your gift card is compromised, notify the card issuer to see if you can get a refund
Social media scams
According to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) data, fake prizes, sweepstakes, and lotteries were in the top five fraud categories in 20216 – probably because so many of them happen on social media. In fact, 40% of BBB Scam Tracker reports involve people who fell victim to scams via Facebook and Instagram ads.7
Scammers use social platforms because they can reach a wider audience. They steal photos and content from websites and other ads generated by genuine retailers to offer fake products, take payment, and often send nothing (if they do, it can be a low-quality knock-off).
Social media scammers may also send you direct messages falsely claiming that you’ve won a contest you never entered. They may ask you to fill out a survey or take a quiz or poll. These can end with lost money or malware and virus attempts – don’t fall for the clickbait.
How to avoid it:
✓ Be suspicious of prizes from non-verified accounts for simple social media actions
✓ Update your privacy settings on your social media accounts
✓ Change your social media login credentials regularly
✓ Contact companies only through secure, verified channels
Find out how to tell if you’ve won a Chime Sweeps. Hint: we won’t ask for Personal Identifiable Information (PII) over social media to verify if you’ve won. You’ll see your winnings sitting safely in your account – period.
We all love free stuff, but if a package shows up on your porch that you didn’t order, it’s a little suspicious. A brushing scam is when a scammer sends a package to your address and later writes a fake glowing product review on your behalf.8
By having the package delivered to your address, it appears as though you’re a verified buyer, and “your” reviews then fraudulently boost the company’s image and sales.
While this doesn’t directly harm you, it does mean that your name, address, and possibly phone number could be floating out in the void.
If you want to keep the free (likely low-quality) merch, go for it. It’s legal. On other occasions, though, “porch pirates” might watch the package as it’s delivered and take it back immediately. (Rude – at least let us keep the fake gift!).
You can’t really avoid it, but you can:
✓ Refuse to pay for the merchandise
✓ Notify the retailer that allegedly sent the package
✓ Change all your passwords on important accounts
✓ Return the package to the sender if it has a return address
✓ Monitor your credit card statements and credit reports
Around the holidays, scammers might make up fake charities and take advantage of well-meaning donors. Fake charity fraudsters may request an urgent donation, but a real charity should not impose pressure on a potential donor.
The fraudsters will request payment through wire transfers, cash, or prepaid cards – easy to cash and difficult to trace.
These scams are prevalent during the holidays and after natural disasters. Watch out for a sudden influx of suspicious emails, social media posts, crowdfunding promos, and telemarketing calls.
How to avoid it:
✓ Consider sticking to charities you’re familiar with
✓ Investigate the charity’s name and website (most legitimate charities use .org rather than .com)9
✓ Search the charity’s annual reports via your state’s Secretary of State website
✓ Maintain a record of your donations to compare with your bank statements
Holiday job post scams
‘Tis the season for, you guessed it, seasonal jobs! And fake holiday job postings. As if job hunting wasn’t hard enough, some scammers will post seasonal jobs that seem too good to be true (typically with high pay for generic tasks).
Fraudsters pose as employees of familiar companies and post ads for job openings across the internet. They’re looking for ways to get job seekers to pay in advance for things like job supplies or training, gain personal information for later use, or get free work out of the applicant.
How to avoid it:
✓ Don’t fall for job postings that request any kind of payment upfront
✓ Trust your instincts if the pay seems uncharacteristically high for the job itself
✓ Be leery if the job doesn’t require an interview
✓ Don’t do any work for free (always get an official letter confirming pay before doing any work)Tactics of holiday scammers
Tactics of holiday scammers
Scammers are sneaky, but many holiday shopping scams show the same suspicious signs. Some red flags to keep in mind:
- Spelling and grammar errors on a website or in an email or text message
- Slightly incorrect URLs (instead of chime.com, it’d say chiime.com)
- Requests for personal information (especially a social security or bank account number)
- Unsolicited emails with suspicious links or downloads
- Anyone claiming to be a victim or using sentimental language to lure payment
- Urgent requests for money or to update payment or address information
- Requests for payments via less traceable mediums (gift cards, cash, or wire transfers)
- Large discounts on high-demand items, especially promoted via social ads
Take action if you're the victim of a holiday scam
First thing’s first: don’t panic. If you’ve fallen for one of the above holiday scams, you’re not alone. Fraud and scams, by design, are meant to fool and persuade. Here are some steps you can take to combat the situation and recover.
Did you pay the scammer?
If you paid with a debit or credit card, contact the card issuer and notify them about the charge. The same goes for gift cards or any unauthorized transaction made via wire transfer or peer-to-peer (P2P) payment app: contact your bank immediately and the company behind the app for a potential reversal.11
You are more likely to get your money back if the charge itself was fraudulent, i.e., an unauthorized transfer or charge. It may be harder to recover your money if you knowingly authorized a transaction to a scammer.
Do your due diligence and ensure you trust someone before sending them money.
Did they get your personal info?
At worst, the scammer may have obtained your social security number. In that case, take these steps, pulled from IdentityTheft.gov, to start the identity fraud reporting process:
- Change all of your usernames and passwords
- Check your credit reports for fraudulent activity
- Monitor your bank activity and notifying your bank of any false transactions
- Report any fraudulent activity to the three credit bureaus (TransUnion®, Experian®, and Equifax®)
- Place freezes (or fraud alerts) on your credit reports via the credit bureaus
- File a police report with your local law enforcement
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
What are the most common modern-day scams?
How can I protect myself from holiday scams?
During the holiday season, avoid making online purchases with gift cards. Check a website’s legitimacy via the Better Business Bureau and stick to brands, charities, and recipients you know. Don’t click links or download files from unsolicited emails or texts, and regularly update your account logins and privacy settings.
Can you get scammed through a text message?
Yes. Unfortunately, there are reports of “smishing” – a term that combines “SMS” with the more commonly used term, “phishing.” Smishing is when you receive a text message from a seemingly legitimate company asking for personal information or for you to click on a malicious link. You can forward these fraudulent texts to 7726 (SPAM), a reporting line run by the mobile industry.
Why did I get a package that I didn't order?
It’s either a gift from a friend or relative – or a brushing scam. That’s when a scammer sends a package to your address to obtain a “verified buyer” (you). They write a glowing (fake) review on your behalf, falsifying their online reputation and boosting sales. This scam doesn’t pose a direct danger, but you should update your account logins, as they obtained your name and address somewhere online.
Have a safe and secure holiday season
Knowledge is power against scammers. Now you know what to look for, how to protect yourself, and what to do if you’re scammed. Check out our other Safety & Security guides so that scammers end up with nothing but a bag full of coal this season.